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Milwaukee Firefighters Seek Ambulance Fee

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- A Milwaukee firefighters union leader is calling for levying a fee on private ambulance companies to ease planned cuts in fire service.

Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing backed the idea from David Seager, president of the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association. But the city budget director said it was too late to add the concept to the 2012 budget.

Mayor Tom Barrett has proposed sidelining four firefighting companies, up from two this year, but adding two emergency medical units, for a net cut of 12 firefighters' jobs through attrition.

When the budget was introduced last month, city officials said one fire company would be out of service all next year and three others would be out of service each month, on a rotating basis.

At a hearing on the Fire Department budget last week, Rohlfing told a Common Council committee he had considered decommissioning one company altogether and keeping one out of service all year, but now favored rotating "brownouts" for four companies each month.

Statistics show the department's response time to reach fire and rescue scenes actually improved by a few seconds this year, the first year of the brownouts. Dean Gonzalez, the union vice president, said aldermen should look not only at how long it took the first unit to arrive on the scene, but also how long it took for a second unit to show up and provide needed support. Rohlfing said his staff was working on those figures.

Seager said any budget cut would reduce needed service to residents. In a switch from his union's vehement opposition to previous staffing cuts, Seager said he wouldn't use "scare tactics" or predict dire consequences, but that he would pray for the safety of firefighters and residents.

To reduce the number of brownouts, Seager told the council's Finance & Personnel Committee the city should charge a fee to private ambulances sent out by Fire Department dispatchers. When Milwaukee residents call 911 for medical help, dispatchers decide whether the caller needs a paramedic team or just an ambulance ride to a hospital. About 30, 000 times a year, the dispatchers send only a private ambulance. On another 25, 000 occasions annually, paramedics show up first, provide aid, then call a private ambulance to take the patient to a hospital. In each case, the ambulance companies then bill the patients.

Seager said a $25-a-call dispatch fee was discussed several years ago. That would raise $1.4 million a year, which Rohlfing said would cover more than half his $2.4 million dispatching costs.

City budget director Mark Nicolini said the fee idea could be discussed with the city's Ambulance Service Board for consideration in future budgets.

But he said it shouldn't be rushed through as a council amendment to next year's budget.

In a related matter, Nicolini said any cut in county paramedic aid should be spread throughout the city budget, not taken just from emergency medical services.

County Executive Chris Abele has proposed eliminating a $3 million county subsidy to local fire departments for paramedic units, including $1.2 million to Milwaukee. But the County Board may scale back the cut. City Comptroller W. Martin "Wally" Morics said he couldn't assess the impact on the city budget until the board's Finance & Audit Committee acts on that part of the county's 2012 budget.

Final board action on the county budget is set for Nov. 7, three days after the council acts on the city budget Nov. 4. Barrett and Abele then could sign the budgets or cast partial vetoes, subject to veto override attempts.



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